Ethan Hawke, left, and Mason Thames star in "The Black Phone."

Ethan Hawke, left, and Mason Thames star in "The Black Phone." Credit: AP/Fred Norris

PLOT A boy is abducted by a serial killer.

CAST Ethan Hawke, Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw

RATED R (violence, bloody images, language, some drug use)


WHERE In theaters

BOTTOM LINE A clever thriller boosted by the performances of its two young stars.

The kid-centric thriller “The Black Phone” is a well-balanced act of a movie that has elements of supernatural, psychological suspense and horror but never falls heavily into a single camp. It also has one of the most satisfying endings of a horror-thriller in recent years.

The film — set in northern Denver in 1978 — follows 13-year-old Finney, played with real verve by newcomer Mason Thames. The filmmakers establish a grim mood right from the start, with wide-scale bullying, schoolyard fights, bloody bruises, and alcoholic and abusive parents. Add to this mix, the low-level buzz of homemade missing posters on walls.

There's a serial killer prowling, nicknamed The Grabber, who's a professional magician. Five teen boys have vanished. Finney — and his spunky younger sister, a fabulous Madeleine McGraw — are old enough to understand stranger abduction but still young enough to think that saying his name out loud is unlucky.

Finney knows a few of the victims but gets a firsthand knowledge when The Grabber — a confusing Ethan Hawke — nabs him and locks him in his basement, a space meant to hold humans. It's carefully curated except for that black phone the killer says is disconnected, it's wires cut. So why does it keep ringing for Finney?

The filmmakers lean a little too much on the supernatural to free Finney — does the phone really need to periodically beat like a heart? The movie has a “Stranger Things”-meets-"Room" vibe and even namechecks a film deep in its debt: “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

The film's tagline is “Don't Talk to Strangers” and it's painfully wrong. While applicable to The Grabber, Finney learns that the voices on the other end of the black phone are his previous victims. They're helping him, each call a way to outwit The Grabber and, put together, a way home safe. “Use what we gave you,” one disembodied voice counsels.

What makes “The Black Phone” stand out is how it perfectly captures what growing up was like in the often raw '70s and an utter respect for the world of kids. Every adult is either dismissive and distant — or downright murderous. At its center is the fraternity of teen victims and the bond between sister and brother working against the twisted adult world. It will, uh, grab you.

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